Cultured Chicken–Which Came First, The Chicken Or The Cell?

Even though I was raised in the city, I thought I had a good grasp of how a chicken nugget ends up on my plate. The chicken comes from an egg, and the nugget is made from the chicken, right? Maybe not. The San Francisco based U.S. startup Eat Just has developed “cultured chicken.” This achievement does not mean the chickens are opera fans; it means that Eat Just is aiming to sell a lab grown meat product with chicken nuggets as their first offering. Say what?

Add to the list of weird things occurring in 2020 the regulatory approval of Eat Just’s cultured chicken by food safety officials in Singapore. The American company’s product is real chicken made from animal cells grown in a controlled environment. The chicken is actual meat and not a plant-based alternative. Sounds like the lesser of two evils to me. Do I want to order fake chicken nuggets made from a plant or cultured chicken nuggets made in the lab of a clearly mad scientist? I mean really–it has to take someone a bit off to think about growing chicken in your lab.

Thankfully, I am not currently faced with this no win choice between plant-produced and lab-produced chicken nuggets. The lab-grown meat is still in the early stages of development and is not yet sold in the United States. Such meat is not expected to be widely available for at least five years.

Even if that product was currently available in this country, I couldn’t afford to buy one chicken nugget, much less a serving of six. Due to production costs, Eat Just has indicated chicken nuggets would run about $50 EACH. Apparently the Whopper is not only a burger but the cost of your lunch bill for cultured chicken nuggets. Admittedly, high production costs are a barrier to sales at this point.

Don’t think you want to know how sausage is made? How about how cultured chicken is made? Lab-grown meat is bottom line cell-based meat. Cultured chicken is grown in the lab from animal muscle cells. Stem cells from the muscle of the chicken are placed in a culture medium that feeds the cells allowing them to grow. The meat is grown in a bioreactor in a fluid of amino acids, sugar, and salt. The product is harvested from a bioreactor after enough density is achieved. Is your mouth-watering yet or has the gag reflex been activated?

On the bright side, the cultured chicken comes from a clean, controlled lab environment. Eat Just likens their meat-production process to operating a brewery. Real chicken, on the other hand, comes from chickens who’ve been hanging out in a stinky chicken coop.

Why in the world would someone seek to develop lab-grown meat? Actually, there are several good reasons for this course of action. Demand for alternatives to regular meat has soared due to consumer concerns about health, animal welfare, and the environment. Cell-based meat has the potential to use much less land and water, produce less carbon dioxide, and to fight food contamination. The meat is produced efficiently as well because only the part of the animal which will be eaten is made in the lab; nothing goes to waste.

Eat Just aims to provide meat in a sustainable and ethically produced way. The fact that the meat is a slaughter-free product is a big selling point. No animals are killed to enable you to have cultured chicken nuggets on your plate. Of course, the chickens will have to undergo the removal of some of their muscle cells. If a needle is used, that might sting a bit, but at least the chicken is still alive to squawk about the indignity inflicted.

Health benefits are derived from cultured chicken too. No antibiotics are used to produce the meat, and Eat Just’s cultured chicken has a high protein count. The product is actually 70% lab-grown chicken with the remaining 30% being bean protein and other ingredients. Mmm, mmm. [Warning: Sarcasm font in use.] Safety tests have show the cultured chicken meets the same safety standards as traditional poultry with “extremely low and significantly cleaner microbiological content” than conventional chicken.

The reality is that it’s just a matter of time before lab-grown meats will be a real option for U.S. consumers. The Bill Gates-backed Memphis Meats is hard at work on entering this market with affordable and tasty lab-grown meats. Yes, please make the cultured meat tasty if you want people to buy it.

Eat Just has its eye on more than cultured chicken to sell. It is also attempting to develop lab-grown Japanese Wagyu beef. Others are also working to perfect a variety of cultured meats. An Israeli lab produced a steak grown from cells in a lab back in 2018. The Brits are trying for cultured bacon. The UK’s University of Bath aims to achieve bacon which comes entirely off of the hoof, giving an entirely new meaning to the phrase “Makin’ Bacon.” The UK researchers point out the end result of their work is that the pig is alive (albeit missing a few stem cells) and there’s lots of bacon.

Intellectually, I understand the desire for lab-grown products to address health, animal welfare, and environmental concerns. Nevertheless, my stomach is having a hard time getting excited about the the idea of eating cultured meat. But progress is inevitable whether my stomach likes it or not. One day, (post-pandemic, of course), I’ll be in a restaurant and the server will ask, “And how did you want your steak? Off the hoof or out of the lab?” Label me a bad citizen, but I am not eagerly anticipating that conversation.

Just WONDER-ing:

Did you have any idea that meat could be grown in a lab without the necessity of killing an animal? Would knowing the meat on your plate came out of a bioreactor rather than off the hoof affect how you viewed it? How willing are you to try cultured meat?

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